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Nuclear Material (Reprocessing)

3.31 pm

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement on the agreement to reprocess nuclear material from Georgia at Dounreay.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Doug Henderson): I thank the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) for his question.

The United Kingdom will shortly take delivery of approximately 5 kg of fresh and spent highly enriched uranium fuel that has been held at a civil research reactor in Tbilisi in Georgia. The Government's decision to accept the fuel was made in support of our policy on non-proliferation and our obligations to enhance security and safety.

The United Kingdom and United States experts who examined the Georgian reactor site concluded that the fuel was inadequately protected. Given that highly enriched uranium of this type is ideally suited for use in a nuclear weapon, it was essential that it was moved to a secure location. The fact that the United Kingdom is taking the material shows the Government's strong commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. We shall be making a significant contribution to international security. Hon. Members will know that the 1996 summit in Moscow reaffirmed the commitment of the G8 countries to take action in support of that aim.

Other G8 countries are contributing to the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. The United States, for example, has taken 600 kg of highly enriched uranium from Kazakhstan. Russia has taken 173 kg of fissile material from Iraq since the Gulf war. France, Germany and Canada are involved in projects to convert stocks of excess plutonium from Russia's dismantled nuclear weapons into fuel for reactors.

The Government are determined to demonstrate that we, too, are committed to solving in a practical way the problems of nuclear proliferation. The uranium from Georgia will be held by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Dounreay. The vast majority will be usable immediately by the authority in its routine production of medical isotope targets, which are a vital component in both the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. This amount will permit the manufacture of an additional 5 million cancer treatments. The spent fuel--of which there is only 0.8 kg--will result, after reprocessing, in a small amount of intermediate-level radioactive waste. As Georgia has no other nuclear material and no facilities for storing waste, the United Kingdom is making an exception to its policy of long standing that waste generated by reprocessing foreign spent fuel should be returned to the country of origin.

The small quantity of waste will be retained in the United Kingdom. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, it will add about two drums of intermediate-level nuclear waste to the existing 14,000 drums at Dounreay. No decision has yet been made on exactly where it will be stored. The House will be advised on that. In accordance with International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines, which state that, for security reasons,

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movements of nuclear materials should not be made public in advance, we were under an obligation to keep confidential the fact that the material was to be moved from Georgia to the United Kingdom. We intended to inform Parliament of the details of the project on the day that the material arrived. Although, in accordance with the guidelines, we are not at this stage able to reveal publicly the date of the arrival of the highly enriched uranium in the United Kingdom, we shall, of course, notify Parliament on the date.

Mr. Maclennan: I thank the Minister for that reply. While I recognise the nature of the international guidelines to which he referred, with regard to intelligence about the date of movement, does he agree that it would have been better if the news of the agreement had come from the Government directly, not from the columns of the New York Times? Does he accept--I think that he clearly does--that if weapons-grade nuclear material is at risk of getting into the hands of dangerous people, there is a duty on the Government to seek to safeguard it by international collaborative action? While I recognise that the regulators have acknowledged the capability of Dounreay to handle the material safely and adapt it to benign use, including medical isotopes, can the Minister affirm again, in the light of the wild statements that have been made notably by the Scottish National party that Scotland is the nuclear dustbin of the world, that other countries are bearing a much heavier part of the international burden than Britain?

Will Her Majesty's Government seize this opportunity to initiate an open and wide international debate on the need to tackle the danger of unstable and unsuitable reactor systems in the states of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, which give rise to concern? In the light of the expertise and resources of the five permanent members of the Security Council, it must make sense to embrace the need to tackle the matter not only in the general terms of the non-proliferation agreement but in detailed terms of particular reactors.

Mr. Henderson: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising those important issues. On the question of providing information, I shall not repeat what I said in my statement, but I agree that it would have been better had the matter been heard of first in the House. However, as he and the House will recognise, I cannot control what leaks are given to the New York Times.

On the other points of substance raised by the right hon. Gentleman, I very much agree that it is necessary to take international action to help the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union to deal with dangerous materials. The burden should be and is being shared internationally: the United States has made a contribution and so has Russia; France, Germany and Canada have indicated that they, too, are prepared to do so. It is important that if we say that we believe strongly in the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, which this Government do, we are prepared to do what we need to do to help that process to be conducted safely and securely.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Setting aside whether the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) is suggesting that Mr. Alastair Campbell should extend his iron grip to the editorial staff of the New York Times,

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does my hon. Friend agree that it is infinitely preferable that this potentially extremely dangerous material is in safe hands in this country where it can be properly dealt with than rolling around the world, with the possibility of rogue Governments, like those of Iraq and Libya, or terrorists getting hold of it?

Mr. Henderson: I very much agree with my right hon. Friend's point. That is also the view of the Georgian Government, who themselves want those dangerous substances to be dealt with safely and securely. They very much welcome the international effort, which includes on this occasion the contribution made by the British Government.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): Is not the Minister being complacent about the widespread concern that this serious matter has raised, not so much because of the substance of the matter, but because of the cloak-and-dagger way in which the deal was done and the underhand way in which it has come to light? Is the Minister aware that, although the Opposition will support any reasonable efforts to reduce nuclear proliferation, the way in which this secret deal has been struck is completely unacceptable? Does he recall that, when his party was in opposition, it promised that a future Labour Government would be committed to transparency and openness? Can he tell us what has happened to those promises now? Is that not another example of Labour saying one thing in opposition and doing exactly the reverse in government?

Can the Minister tell us, hand on heart, that if the news had not leaked in the New York Times, the Prime Minister was really intending to announce it, or has the leak necessitated a hasty rethink? Is it not the case that the Prime Minister was not prepared to release the information because he was afraid of the reaction on his own Back Benches? Will the Minister tell us how many other secret deals the Prime Minister has struck with President Clinton and what he hopes to get in return?

Has the Minister taken the trouble to ask the French and the Americans why they refused to take and process the nuclear waste that is now being transported to Scotland? How much more nuclear material has the Prime Minister agreed to take from the former Soviet Union? Can the Minister confirm that the Dounreay plant has both the licence and the technology to deal with this level of nuclear waste? Will he now, at last, tell the House the full terms of the agreement, so that we can make a judgment on its merits, as we should have been able to do at the outset? Finally, will he confirm that, in future, the Prime Minister will remember his pre-election promises and start to act in accordance with the principles of democratic and open government?

Mr. Henderson: I have heard many Opposition questions in 11 years in the House, but I have never heard one as misdirected as that one. I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman wants the House to believe that he is soft on terrorism, but what he says is tantamount to that.

The previous Government would know, just as we now know, that there is a serious problem in dealing with these materials in countries such as Georgia. That is why an international agreement was made at the summit in Moscow in 1996, which the then Prime Minister attended,

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and at which he endorsed the principles that were agreed. What the Government are now doing is making a contribution as part of that international agreement.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that a draft parliamentary answer had already been prepared to give to the House once this matter could be announced to the House, and that those preparations had been made, but a time scale could not be put on it then, and it still cannot.

I am assured by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency that it is satisfied with the work that Dounreay will undertake. I am satisfied that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority is perfectly capable of dealing with this substance effectively, and that view is supported in Dounreay.

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